The Dead Don't Die's premise simply isn't developed enough to sustain the entire film, even with a great cast and Jarmusch's dark wit at its disposal.
Over the course of nearly forty years, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has applied his cheeky storytelling to just about every popular American genre under the sun (vampire movies, crime dramas, mysteries, and so on). With his latest offering, The Dead Don't Die, Jarmusch turns his eye to the zombie genre and its own history as a source of inspiration for satire and social commentary on the state of things in the world. However, as indicated by the horror-comedy's lukewarm reception at this year's Cannes Film Festival, this is one of those cases where the auteur's methods are only partially effective. The Dead Don't Die's premise simply isn't developed enough to sustain the entire film, even with a great cast and Jarmusch's dark wit at its disposal.
The Dead Don't Die's setup is pretty basic: three police officers (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny, all of whom have collaborated with Jarmusch before) find their small town of Centerville overrun with zombies, after a series of strange events causes the dead to begin rising from the grave. It's a plot that would feel right at home in a George A. Romero zombie movie, as the film acknowledges by name-dropping the "father" of zombie cinema himself. More than that, though, Jarmusch's script brings Romero to mind in the way it uses the zombpocalypse to satirize America in the present, from its not so subtle allusions to issues like global warming to the way it skewers mass media and the idea of "fake news". And of course, there's an on the nose gag involving a certain president's infamous slogan at one point, too.
Unfortunately, The Dead Dont' Die has a hard time settling on a throughline along the way. The film's political references are somewhat scattershot overall, as are its efforts to comment on modern consumerism by using mindless zombies as a metaphor (a la what Romero's Dawn of the Dead did). Similarly, the movie is full of self-reflexive comedy - whether it involves people flat out breaking the fourth wall or inside jokes based around Tilda Swinton and her character (Centerville's new, non-American funeral director) - that has a bad habit of coming off feeling self-satisfied and slack in its execution. None of this is necessarily unusual for a Jarmusch project, of course; the filmmaker has always been more interested in dancing to the rhythm of his own drum, rather than trying to adhere to genre conventions. Nevertheless, the final result here is a movie that feels like a hodgepodge of interesting concepts and ideas that fail to come together to form a cohesive whole.
One area where the film is consistent, though, is in the way it builds up a sense of apocalyptic atmosphere. The Dead Don't Die is as slow-paced and contemplative as Jarmusch's previous work, but it makes sense in light of the movie's feeling of impending doom (something Driver's character alludes to many times over, in one of the film's better running jokes). DP Frederick Elmes does his part to sustain that mood through his cinematography, which favors dusky colors in many a scene and photographs the eventual zombie-related carnage in visceral, up close and personal detail. But again, this is a Jarmusch movie, so there's a sense of ironic detachment to everything that takes place, the more dramatic and serious moments included. Still, as much as The Dead Don't Die is trying to be gloomy and unhurried, it winds up feeling sluggish and otherwise listless to a fault, in-between its explicitly comedic moments.
Those funny beats tend to work more often than not, though, thanks to the movie's male leads. Murray and Driver have Jarmusch's typical deadpan, dry-voiced performance style down pat by this point, and the latter gets most of the biggest laughs in the entire film. Sevigny, sorry to say, is stuck playing the straight woman to the pair, but she makes the most of what she's given all the same. Beyond that, The Dead Don't Die features an impressively eclectic supporting cast that includes Swinton in another memorably idiosyncratic turn, brief appearances by Carol Kane, RZA, Iggy Pop, and Selena Gomez, and character actors like Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, and Caleb Landry Jones playing Centerville's various residents (some more eccentric than others). Of the lot, though, it's Tom Waits as the forest-dwelling outsider, Hermit Bob, who leaves the strongest impression and has the most to draw from here... which isn't saying much, sadly. Indeed, for a movie with such a unique ensemble, it's frustrating how little The Dead Don't Die actually offers them, when it comes to interesting material or things to do.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with The Dead Don't Die: the film has a lot of promise on paper, but runs out of gas well before making its way to the finish line. As a result, the movie ends up feeling like a watered-down version of an actual Romero zombie flick, only re-imagined in Jarmusch's trademark style (complete with reverent literary references and detached irony). Still, for those who can't get enough of the indie filmmaker and his self-aware "hipster" ways, The Dead Don't Die is otherwise serviceable and is worth a look at some point, if not necessarily on the big screen. As for the future: here's hoping Jarmusch continues to try his hand at every popular genre out there, whether it's an alien invasion movie, another monster film, or whatever strikes his fancy.
The Dead Don't Die is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 103 minutes long and is rated R for zombie violence/gore, and for language.
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- The Dead Don't Die (2019) release date: Jun 14, 2019